As the enduring popularity of gangsta rap attests, the world, or at least a sizable portion of the music-consuming public, loves a thug. But as 2Pac discovered, winning over the mainstream often takes a thug with a heart of gold, a prominently displayed vulnerable streak, and a willingness to indulge in the occasional R&B hook. An avowed follower of the Church Of 2Pac (as well as DMX), Ja Rule made his name with chest-beating turns on Jay-Z's "Can I Get A…" and the pop-gangsta anthem "Holla Holla." But the oft-shirtless hit-maker didn't ascend to superstar status until he got in touch with his sensitive side on such blatantly commercial pop-rap tearjerkers as "Put It On Me" and "I Cry." Never one to mess with a winning formula, Ja Rule once again courts both the TRL crowd and the Murder Dog demographic with Pain Is Love, his third solo album, which has already scored a massive crossover hit with its remix of Jennifer Lopez's "I'm Real." A strangely infectious bit of ear candy, "I'm Real" (along with the rest of his oeuvre) suggests that for all his agitated bloodlust—his crew is called the Murderers, after all—Ja Rule's only real gift is for crafting undeniable pop hooks. That talent is underrated, but it still does little to cover up the rapper's derivative lyrics and crassly recycled 2Pacisms. Though 2Pac's specter hovers over every element of the disc, from its title to the heavy-handed "Brenda's Got A Baby"-styled narrative "Lost Little Girl," he doesn't pop up himself until Pain Is Love's second to last track, "So Much Pain." It's a fairly routine performance from 2Pac, a defiant cocktail of thugged-out fatalism, weed-induced paranoia, and predictable macho bluster. But even at less than his best, 2Pac still conveys a sense of urgency and purpose that illustrates incontestably the huge chasm separating the real deal from a canny imitation.